Friday, 11 October 2019

Kobo Forma review: A good premium e-reader with some flaws

Before the release of the Libra, the Forma was Kobo’s only a-symmetric e-reader. The Forma’s shape and feel are different than the Kindle Oasis. It also does not have a raised bump - the back is near flat but with a tapered wedge-side that feels like holding a book when folded back. It takes time to get used to the Forma but afterwards, I found the device’s ergonomics to be intuitive. In contrast, I never felt the same about the Oasis due to its unnatural bump. I will split the review into two sections: what I liked and disliked about the Forma. Overall, the Forma is a good e-reader that falls short.

What I like about the Forma 

Improved a-symmetric design 

As stated, Kobo has improved on the Oasis’s a-symmetric design with a tapered edge that feels natural when holding. The Forma’s plastic and robust Mobius substrate mean, unlike the Oasis, it doesn’t feel fragile in hand. Also, as there is no metallic casing, the Forma does not feel cold to hold in cold weather.

Mobius technology makes the Forma light. 

The Forma is an 8-inch e-reader but weighs only 197 grams due to its Mobius plastic substrate. The smaller seven-inch Kobo Libra, in comparison, is about the same weight at 192 grams and the 7-inch Oasis weighs 188 grams. The Forma’s larger size, however, makes it less convenient to hold for one-handed reading.

Pocket, OverDrive & Dropbox integration 

Pocket and OverDrive integration are two unique features. Pocket integration means it is possible to sync saved articles to read on the Forma. OverDrive allows the user to borrow library e-books and then have them synced on the Forma. Of course, the depth and quality of a book catalogue depend on the user’s local or regional library consortium.

Dropbox is a new feature, currently only supported on the Forma, that allows the user to upload documents wirelessly and then download these documents on the Forma. Further, documents are categorised by folders created in Dropbox.

Superior font rendering and reading settings 

In comparison to Amazon, Kobo’s software has sharper and clearer font rendering. Also, readers have greater reading settings options available.

Excellent screen 

As I posted before, larger Android e-readers released by less known vendors, e.g., Boyue and Onyx Boox, have lower-quality screens. The Forma does not match the power and versatility of Android e-readers, but its screen is superior (text appears clearer and less faded). The screen quality is one of the best I’ve seen on any e-reader. For many users - those that don’t need the benefits of an Android e-reader – the Forma is the better option.

What I disliked about the Forma 

Battery life 

I would estimate, for regular readers, the Forma’s 1200 mAh battery to last between four to five days. The lower battery capacity is not unique to the Forma – the problem similarly applies to the Kobo Libra and Kindle Oasis (possibly due to the slimmer profile of these devices). However, the Forma battery life is still better than most Android e-readers. I would say the Forma, in terms of battery life, is between the Kindle Paperwhite and Android e-readers.

Front light problems 

The Kobo Forma – considering it is a premium e-reader – doesn't have a good front light. The unit I own has uneven wedge-side lighting in which there is a bright light band followed by grey shadowing. Many Forma owners also report this issue with their e-readers.

Overall, the evenness of the Forma’s front light – again, considering the Forma is Kobo’s flagship e-reader – could be better. Amazon’s mid-range Kindle Paperwhite, in comparison, has a better front light (see picture below).

The Kindle Paperwhite (left), in comparison to the Forma (right), has a more even and warmer front light (click image to enlarge)

Nickel lacks key software features 


I’ve posted before on why Amazon’s software is superior to Kobo’s Nickel. Nevertheless, once again, I’ll highlight two key areas that Kobo needs to improve:
  1. Better support for personal documents: As stated above, the Forma recently received Dropbox support. The feature makes it possible to manage a library of personal documents wirelessly but doesn’t support the ability to sync this library between devices. Thus, there is no way to access let alone sync the page location and annotations of personal documents, for example, between the Forma and Kobo's Android application. 
  2. Poor PDF support: There is no way to interact with the text of a PDF and document rendering is slow. Of course, it is relatively easy to install Koreader for PDF documents. Nevertheless, readers shouldn't need to rely on third-party applications that are not optimised for Kobo’s hardware. 
Summary 

The Kobo Forma is a good e-reader that falls short from being an excellent one. The front light problems are Forma specific and require a hardware upgrade. On the other hand, the noted missing key software features apply to other Kobo e-readers and should’ve been remedied before. The recent Dropbox support is a definite positive but doesn’t go far enough in supporting wireless cloud management of personal documents.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Review of the Kobo Forma SleepCover

It is difficult to find cases for a-symmetric e-readers (Kindle Oasis, Kobo Forma and Kobo Libra H2O). Most universal 7 – 8-inches cases will not fit, and this means the necessity of choosing a case designed specifically for the e-reader. In the case of Kobo e-readers, compared to Kindle, there is also a smaller pool of third-party cases available. Further, many alternative cases are built from lower-quality materials, and some have design defects.

Another option is to buy a sleeve but a-symmetric e-readers, due to the extra width, don’t always fit into universal sleeves. For example, it is not possible to fit the Forma inside the Amazon Basics 8-inches tablet sleeve. Due to limited options, I decided to test the official Forma sleep cover. Without doubt, Kobo, like other established vendors, has priced its case too high. However, it is possible to find the case at a lower price from third-party sellers. The case is well designed and does not add a lot of weight to the Forma. Below are my impressions after using the case:
  • Build quality and materials are good. The case’s outer material is made with PU leather. The inside of the front cover is a soft microfibre, and the back’s interior is made from hard plastic for extra protection. A problem with the soft microfibre is that it stains quickly. The case also comes in black and plum.
  • When you fold the front cover backwards, it magnetically attaches itself to the back. The locking of the cover to the rear is an excellent feature that prevents the front cover flopping and moving when folded. Amazon supports the same function with its Kindle Paperwhite cases, but many vendors and third-party accessories manufacturers neglect this feature. 
  • The origami design allows the user to convert the cover into a stand for hands-free reading in both portrait and landscape mode. As the magnetic cover locks to the back, the converted stand is stable. A negative is that there is only one viewing angle, and this angle is slightly steep. 
  • The case has a slim profile that leaves the side edge uncovered. Kobo should’ve kept the power button and charging port exposed and covered the rest of the side edge. 
Kobo Forma’s official case is well-designed but has its flaws. The build quality and materials used also don’t justify the high price. Pricing aside, the official case is the best option available for the Forma.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Kobo Libra H2O offers a lot of value

Kobo updated the Kobo Aura H2O (Edition 2). The updated model is now known as the Kobo Libra H2O and keeps the same price as the previous generation (£150). The new model gets significant upgrades and offers more for the same price. Below is a summary of the device's features and updates:
  • The screen resolution is bumped up to from 265 PPI to 300 PPI. The screen size also receives a slight increase from 6.8-inches to 7-inches.
  • Unlike the Forma, the Libra H2O has no Mobius screen technology. Hence the weight of the Kobo Libra H2O, despite the smaller screen size, is about the same as the Forma (the Libra weighs 192 grams and the Forma, in comparison, weighs 197 grams). 
  • One downgrade is battery capacity. The previous generation (Aura H2O Edition 2) has a 1500mAh capacity. In comparison, the Libra H2O has a 1200mAh capacity. The battery downgrade may be due to the slimmer form factor. To substantiate, the Forma has a similar a-symmetrical slim design and similarly has a 1200mAh capacity. 
  • It is not clear if the front-light gets extra LEDs. The updated model, like the previous generation, supports Kobo’s ComfortLight PRO. 
  • Like the Forma, the Libra H2O gets the same a-symmetrical design and physical page turn buttons. The only difference in design is the Libera H2O’s lack of a flush screen, and this could be a negative for some users. Maybe the absence of a flush screen is a cost-saving decision by Kobo? 
  • Unfortunately, we get the same outdated Freescale/NXP IMX6 Solo Lite 1 GHZ Processor used on the Aura H2O (Edition 2). I didn’t think Kobo would upgrade the processor considering the Forma’s processor is the same IMX6 Solo Lite. 
  • Storage and RAM remain the same as the previous generation. 
  • The Libra H2O is available in white and black. I think this is the first time that Kobo offers two colour options.
As stated, these changes make the Libra H2O very attractive. It costs a lot less than the Oasis 3 and supports many of its hardware features - the same screen size, same 300 PPI Carta screen, physical page turn buttons, waterproofing, warm lighting and autorotation. For the reader that wants to read e-books primarily then the Kobo Libra H2O, on paper, is the best value e-reader. The 7-inches form factor is ideal for one-handed reading, and the extra screen estate also means many PDF documents can still be read using KOReader.

Friday, 30 August 2019

An upcoming Kobo Aura H2O update?

An update to the Kobo Aura H2O (Edition 2) might be appearing soon – this makes sense as Edition 2 was released on May 2017. I’ve used the Kobo Aura H2O (Edition 2) and liked the device. The Aura H2O’s screen size is close to the Kindle Oasis – the Oasis has a seven-inch e-reader – and is priced less (the Oasis 3 costs £80 more). Further, the price difference between the Aura H20 (Edition 2) and the smaller Kindle Paperwhite 4 is £30. The 6.8-inches, in my view, makes a significant difference when reading e-books and offers the right compromise between increased size and convenience of one-handed reading.

It is also possible to install KOReader on the Kobo Aura H2O to read PDF documents. Many PDF documents can be read comfortably in landscape mode, but a larger screen offers more versatility. After using the Kobo Aura H20 below are my impressions:
  • The Aura H20’s screen is darker than the Aura One and Forma. Also, the text is not as dark and clear as you get on other Kobo e-readers. It is not a bad screen, and most readers won’t tell the difference unless the screen is compared side-to-side to, for example, the Kobo Forma. The Aura H20’s slightly lower resolution shouldn’t make this marked difference in screen quality.
  • The touch screen on the Aura H20 is smooth and precise; the responsiveness also confirmed to me that the Aura One’s touch screen is slightly off. I would even say touch input is smoother in comparison to the Kobo Forma.
  • The Aura H20 performs slightly better than the Forma. The lower resolution might be a reason for better performance. 
  • I find 6.8-inches to be the ideal size for e-books. As stated, the regular 6-inches feels cramped, and 7.8-inches is too large for one-handed reading.
I think the new generation of the Kobo Aura H2O will come with a 300 PPI improved screen, flush display and a more refined slim body.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Kobo's four standout features

Overall, as I've argued before, Kindle's e-reading software is more advanced than Nickel (Kobo's operating system). Kobo, however, offers four key features that Amazon, at the moment, doesn't match:
  1. OverDrive integration: It is only possible to borrow e-books to read on a Kindle e-reader in the US. Also, the feature is not neatly integrated into the software as it is on a Kobo e-reader. To borrow an e-book on a Kindle e-reader, the user needs to first access the document on OverDrive and then go through checkout to send it to the required device. On a Kobo e-reader, in comparison, OverDrive is integrated into the device's software, and it is possible to borrow books from the Kobo store. Further, it is also possible to borrow an e-book on Libby and then automatically sync it to a Kobo e-reader. 
  2. TypeGenius: Kobo's TypeGenius is a feature that provides a scale to adjust font-weight, font size, line spacing, margins and justification. The scale is not precise as it could be, but it is still significantly better than Amazon's restrictive and limited settings.  
  3. Installation of add-ons: Kobo e-readers are relatively open, and it is easy to install add-on software, e.g., KOReader, and patch the code to access hidden features. The newer Kindles, in comparison, are challenging to jailbreak; this means most users are restricted to using the native software to read PDF documents. Kindle's PDF reader, relative to Kobo, is usable, but KOReader is far better for reading PDF documents. 
  4. Pocket integration: Sending articles to a Kindle e-reader is possible via the Send to Kindle browser add-on or using Automata's Pocket to Kindle application. In comparison, Kobo seamlessly integrates Pocket articles in a designated articles section. This means saved Pocket articles automatically sync and can be managed directly on a Kobo e-reader without requiring the use of add-ons or third-party applications. 

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Lenovo C330 Chromebook: The best budget convertible Chromebook?

The key to serviceable budget technology is cutting the right corners. Expectedly, devices priced lower will make compromises, but the critical issue is if any of these compromises dramatically affect usability. For example, a 2GB RAM Windows 10 laptop or Chromebook is not an option.

The Lenovo C330 is an example of a Chromebook that makes the right compromises. I’ve recently been using the C330, and my impressions are positive. The 4GB RAM and 32GB storage, considering this is a Chromebook, are both enough (there is a 64GB version of the C330). It is also possible to expand storage via a full-size SD Card slot. The screen isn’t full HD, but it is an IPS one with good colour reproduction and viewing angles. Again, Lenovo made the right compromise as a non-IPS screen would be unusable on a convertible Chromebook. Importantly performance from the quad-core Mediatek MT8173 processor is adequate. Performance is closer to a quad-core Intel Celeron Apollo Lake N3450 than the slower Celeron N3350. The laptop weighs 1.2 KG – it is not the lightest in this category but still portable to be easily carried.

There is no stylus input control, but the C330 is a convertible with a touch screen. Many popular Android applications are not supported on non-touch Chromebooks, and this makes a touch screen an essential hardware feature. Further, the touch interface vastly enhances the user experience on Android applications. From an e-reading perspective, it is possible, for example, to install Xodo Reader, Moon+ Reader, Kindle, Kobo, Libby and One Note. The possibility to install One Drive, Google Drive and Dropbox also mean it is possible to sync page location and annotations between e-books and PDF documents.

Lenovo, like most vendors, over-estimates the battery life to be ‘up to 10 hours’. In real use, the C330 gets a full day of mixed-use. With extra care, for example, turning down brightness closer to 25% and turning off WiFi when not needed, battery life can be extended closer to the 10 hours mark. The C330 charges via USB-C; the charger provided is on the larger side, but I found smaller high-powered third-party USB-C chargers work too.

Overall, the Lenovo C330 is a budget convertible Chromebook that makes the right compromises and gets the basics right. It has a nice screen, enough power, ample storage, USB-C charging, good battery life and a touch screen that provides access to most Android applications. The Lenovo C330 is an excellent all-rounder Chromebook.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

Likebook Muses review: Another Boyue e-reader let down by software problems

The Likebook Muses is Boyue’s 7.8-inch e-reader that supports stylus input. The Likebook Muses looks and feels different than the Likebook Mars (previously reviewed here). It is heavier than the Likebook Mars and only comes in white. Both devices, however, run near identical software. The key difference between both being extra stylus input features.

Hardware 

The Likebook Muses is slightly heavier than most 7.8-inch e-readers. It weighs 286 Grams; in comparison, the Onyx Boox Nova Pro weighs 240 grams. The Likebook Muses, like other Android e-readers, runs on a powerful processor - in this case, it is an octa-core Freescale RK3365. Accordingly, performance is a strong point, and any noticeable slowdown is due to the inherent limitations of E-Ink technology or problems with software optimisation. Again, like other Android e-readers, the Likebook Muses has 2GB RAM that makes multitasking, when needed, smooth. However, in real-world use, the extra RAM doesn’t make a significant difference to a note-taking e-reader. To compare, reMarkable functions on 512 MB DDR3L RAM.

A big plus is the Likebook Muses’s screen. The screen doesn’t suffer from the slight blurriness I’ve noticed on Onyx Boox and Boyue e-readers (the issue is more pronounced with Boyue e-readers). Yes, on paper, the Muses has the same 300 PPI E-Ink Carta screen that you get with newer e-readers. However, in real-world use, the text is clearer and comparable to the Kobo Aura One and Kobo Forma. Reading on the Likebook Muses, due to the sharpness and clarity of the text, is a pleasant experience.

The built-in front light is not very good. It is not even, and there is no option, by default, to mix white and warmer colours. The Onyx Boox Nova's front light, in comparison, is significantly better and allows the syncing of colours. I also noticed that the Likebook Muses’s screen sometimes doesn’t register touches. However, the issue might be related to the specific unit I was using.

Finally, battery life is substandard for an e-reader, but this is a problem with Android e-readers in general and not just the Likebook Muses. I would estimate battery life to be two to three days of regular use when using the device as an e-reader. However, when using the device to do tablet tasks, e.g., browsing the web, the battery life is in hours.

Software 

As noted, the Likebook Muses’s software is near identical to the Likebook Mars. Thus, as I’ve reviewed the Likebook Mars before, there is no need to repeat the positives and negatives of Boyue’s firmware. In this review, I will concentrate on the Muses’s note-taking capabilities.

The note-taking application is integrated into the Muses’s home screen interface. In the application, it is possible to create notebooks. The expected note-taking features are present: the ability to choose the pen input style according to pressure sensitivity, line thickness, notebook templates (e.g., lined or non-lined), draw shapes, move items around and add pages to a notebook. There is also the option to export notebooks to Evernote to access them from other devices.

The screen, due to its smooth texture, means writing on the device doesn’t feel natural. The Muses is a note-taking e-reader and, accordingly, Boyue should’ve adapted the screen’s texture and finish.

Stylus input in PDF documents, on the other hand, is a weak point. The Muses does not support stylus input after choosing one of the zoom-in options, e.g. zoom-to-width. The supported zoom options for stylus input are restricted to cropping and pinch-to-zoom. It is frustrating to use stylus input after using pinch-to-zoom due to the absence of a page lock feature (to compare, the Onyx Boox Nova supports the lock feature). The page lock feature is essential in a zoomed-in page as it prevents the page moving when scrolling, writing in or navigating a document. Due to the smaller 7.8-inch screen, the unneeded restrictions on using the stylus in specific zoom modes, as noted, is a significant software weakness.

Another problem – this also applies to the Likebook Mars – is the slow rendering of PDF pages. The slowness is due to a slight delay before turning to the next page of a PDF document. After a page turn, the user is prompted that the device is accessing the page from the memory cache. This problem is not hardware related as it did not exist before the latest firmware update. Further, I did not experience the rendering problem when using KOReader.

As the Muses is the first note-taking e-reader I’ve used, I don’t have a broader perspective on how it compares to other note-taking e-readers. Nevertheless, just from using the Likebook Muses, input was smooth and with no lag. The biggest problem, in my view, is the restrictions Boyue’s software imposes on note-taking in PDF documents.

Third-party applications 

It appears stylus-input is restricted to Boyue’s native software. For example, I tested stylus input in OneNote without success. Overall, I don’t think this lack of support is an issue as most Android applications are unusable on e-readers. Stylus input in KOReader would be useful, but the application doesn’t yet support the feature.

Compatible Android applications – e.g., KOReader, Moon Reader Pro and Libera Pro – all work well. For a list of recommended applications, click here. Like other Android e-readers, ghosting is an issue in third-party applications.

Verdict 

The Likebook Muses, in terms of hardware and software, is like Mars but adds stylus input. Stylus input is smooth and works well, but the biggest negative is the under-developed software. The restriction on using the stylus in a PDF document is a significant drawback. Add to this the slow rendering of PDF pages and note-taking in PDF documents becomes frustrating. On the positive side, the noted issues are not hardware related and can be resolved with a software update. However, these issues should not exist in the first place, and the user should not need to wait for updates to solve these problems.